David Stern is sporting a beard these days. When a colleague wondered if the NBA commissioner intends to avoid a razor until a new collective bargaining agreement is reached, Stern couldn't resist.

"Frankly, I only want a summertime growth," Stern said. "I may have to go into the winter if that was the case."Some stories never seem to end. The Texas heat wave. President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky. The NBA and its labor disputes.

For the third time in the past four years, the owners have imposed a summer lockout. Past disputes focused on how the financial pie was to be sliced.

This is much more difficult. The owners want to alter the system. They believe the soft salary cap, and their inability to exercise restraint, is leading them down a path of financial ruin.

The owners want to eliminate the uncertainty that exists in the current system. They also want to reduce the percentage of basketball related income the players receive.

The owners want a hard salary cap. The Players Association is adamantly opposed. A hard cap means the elimination of the Larry Bird Exception, which allows a team to exceed the cap to re-sign its own free agent. Again, the players will fight this tooth and lawsuit.

Finding middle ground will be difficult. The owners can't realistically expect the union to agree to a hard cap unless the percentage that currently goes to the players - 57.2 percent - remains the same or is increased. The players, meanwhile, can't expect to keep the soft cap and continue to add exceptions that burden the owners with even more financial uncertainty.

Both sides indicate the other issues, such as a veteran wage scale and including marijuana in the league's substance abuse policy, have been or can be resolved with little pain. The core issue - agreeing on a system to distribute the money - is the reason the league could miss regular-season games for the first time in its history.

It's impossible to predict what form these negotiations will take. But here's a framework that could yield meaningful discussion.

THE BOTTOM LINE: The NFL has a hard cap. The players receive 64 percent of the defined gross - the NBA maintains it has more revenue streams feeding into this pool than the NFL - and teams aren't allowed to exceed the cap for any reason.

NBA owners have let it be known that they like the NFL model and would be willing to tailor it to their sport. Jeffrey Kessler, the union lawyer who had a key role in the formation of the NFL salary cap, has told Stern and the owners that won't fly.

FIRST STEP: The owners can guarantee a percentage increase in salaries every year (anywhere from eight to 12 percent) regardless of revenues. This would assuage concerns about the owners taking money out of the players' pockets. In exchange, the players would agree to eliminate the majority of salary cap exceptions. All except one.

The Bird Exception. This is the players' Holy Grail. No way do they give up this right.

While the owners don't like the economics of the Bird Exception, they do like the ability it gives them to retain their star players. This is big in Stern's book. He has seen what the hired gun system has done to baseball, where star players often move from team to team, and doesn't want that to happen in basketball.

Stern is acutely aware of how important it is that fans be able to associate certain stars with a franchise and city. The Bird Exception gives teams the chance to keep their nucleus intact. This continuity allows a franchise to develop a stronger and potentially longer lasting relationship with its fans. This element should persuade the owners to keep the Bird Exception intact in some form.

SECOND STEP: The NFL has its franchise player designation. Why not keep the Bird Exception in the NBA, but limit its use? Give each team the ability to use the exception once or twice over a three-year period and attach a luxury tax.

The league and the Players Association agreed to this model in 1995, but the deal blew up after the players refused to ratify the agreement and attempted to decertify. Why would it be different this time?

For one thing, the owners must agree to give the players a more significant percentage of the basketball related income than they did in '95. How the luxury tax is structured is another key.

Say an owner is forced to match the contract dollar for dollar. If using the Bird Exception leaves a team $10 million over the cap, he must put another $10 million into the pot.

Rather than disperse this money among the other owners, designate it for the union. Establish a bonus pool for the players. If the 29 teams wind up $100 million over the cap at the end of the season, distribute that money to the athletes with a bonus check.

This system would allow the owners to fix costs within a determined range. It also gives the players some room to breathe and expand.

It would be a difficult compromise for both sides, but a fair one.